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INTERVIEW: Kate Lord Brown - author of The Perfume Garden

Friday, June 21, 2013

I first grew to know the British author Kate Lord Brown through her blog What Kate Did Next where she muses about reading, writing, motherhood ... all the things I like to muse about too. 

So when she published her book THE BEAUTY CHORUS about women flyers in the Second World war, I was quick to read it. You can read the interview I did with her in 2011 about THE BEAUTY CHORUS here.

I really enjoyed THE BEAUTY CHORUS and so I was quick to grab a copy of her new book THE PERFUME GARDEN as soon as it came out. It was wonderful! You can read my review here or just enjoy reading Kate's responses to my questions below:

Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely - at least as a writer, boondoggling can be described as 'creative thinking'. Some of the most vivid parts of a story come to you when your mind's in neutral and playing - dreams, half wakefulness, when you're in the shower or walking the dog. Daydreaming is vital.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, always. Like a lot of writers I wrote diaries and stories and plays as a child. It's been a lifelong dream.

Tell me about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I grew up in a very wild and beautiful part of the south west of England, between Exmoor and Dartmoor. It's a beautiful part of the world, full of myth and magic - hidden valleys, stone circles, secret coves and beaches, austere moors, winters full of snow and summers that seem to last forever. We lived in an isolated village, and as children had the run of Stoodleigh Court's grounds. There was a lot of freedom and it was a great place to be a child - I'm sure it fostered my imagination. Where I live now couldn't be more different - in a gated secure compound in the only true desert country in the world, in the Middle East. It's not forever, but missing the countryside, and freedom, and culture is a constant ache. But you make the best of it - there are few distractions! Here, life revolves around writing and the family, but a dream day would involve one of the world's great cities - galleries, museums, browsing second hand bookstores, then back to the countryside or coast for a great meal with friends talking late into the night.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for THE PERFUME GARDEN?
I saw Robert Capa's photograph of the 'Falling Soldier' in a Magnum exhibition, and at that moment all the strands of the story pulled together for me. I'd been reading about Spanish history since moving to Valencia, and I knew I wanted to write about the Civil War - but didn't know how. I had all these nebulous ideas floating around - this beautiful abandoned house I loved, the aftermath of 9/11, perfume ... and in that moment it was like someone turned the focus on the lens. Photography was the key.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
The last four novels have been historical fiction, so there is a very strong scaffolding to the stories - it matters that the history is factually accurate, and that any fiction is within the realms of possibility. Beyond that, I know the key 'beats' of the story, so I have a sense of the rhythm, but I don't overplan. Being surprised by your characters is too much fun to plot rigidly.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Oh yes, all the time. I specialised in Surrealism for my BA and have been interested in active dreaming for years. I'm a big believer in rolling through the scenes of your story as you fall asleep - very often in the morning any 'snags' in the storyline will have unravelled. And it's a great moment when your novel spills into your subconscious and you are dreaming about the characters. (I so agree!)

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I love serendipity - it always feels like a small sign that you're on the right track. There were a lot of discoveries with this book, from coming across the perfect abandoned house for Emma, to introductions to historians who helped with the research. Then there was a simple email exchange with a tourism officer in Valencia. A throw away remark he made gave me the missing, final plot twist - what happens to Delilah at the end of the story really happens on a regular basis. Sometimes as a writer it feels like you're following a trail of breadcrumbs more than making anything up!

Where do you write, and when?
It depends what stage the story is at. Now, an average day writing is up at 5am, quickly scrawl down any notes for the day. Take the kids to school, then 7.30am - 12pm writing at my desk, usually with Milo the Siamese X sitting on the table and Oscar the pug by my feet. The desk is in the corner of the living room, so later in the day there are normally troops of children running in and out. If it's a first draft, you have to pin down the story as it comes to you, so the early files are filled with till receipts and backs of envelopes with cryptic messages scrawled in eyeliner, jotted down when I'd stopped in traffic. When the children were small in England, I had a system where I'd toss these scraps down to the basement room where I worked because there was a very real possibility a child or dog would eat the valuable clue. It worked a bit like an Oracle - in the evening when everyone was asleep, I'd run down into the darkness and flick the light on to find the notes scattered like confetti. Each one was a 'seed' from which dialogue or a scene grew.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The first draft, definitely. I love the energy of a new idea blossoming, when you're falling love with the story and the characters. When it gathers momentum, that feeling of urgency can't be beaten.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I let that scene rest, get a change of scenery - walking is very good for 'unblocking'. If you skip ahead and write a scene you're dying to write, then go back to just before the block, it's often clear which pages need to be scrapped. I think we all write ourselves into dead-ends sometimes, and that's when it's time to get ruthless and cut back the dead wood to where the story is still fresh and alive, then 'graft' it to the scene you're excited about.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
It's not as easy as it was, living in Spain or the UK. The things that inspire - beautiful countryside, the coast, ancient architecture, creativity, freedom, authenticity, aren't to hand. So I travel a lot, stockpile books, magazines, movies like a squirrel for the lean months. I keep up to date on what's going on culturally in the places I love. I read, a lot.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Music plays a big part - each novel has a soundtrack which is a shortcut back to the story each time I listen to it. Each first draft is handwritten, so buying new stationery at the start of a new story in September recreates that 'back to school' type focus.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
James Salter, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Barbara Trapido, William Boyd, Mary Wesley, Edward St Aubyn, Sarah Hall, Angela Carter, Isabel Allende. These are all writers I read again and again.

Isabel Allende is one of my favourite writers too!

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Invisible writing - you are simply swept away in the moment, the feeling, the story, dialogue that feels effortless and true.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Begin today. You don't need fancy courses, or computers, or acres of time. Dust off an old notebook and a pen that feels good when you write with it, and carve out a few minutes a day. Write a little every day about something that matters to you, and read books that excite you and move you every day.

What are you working on now? 
I'm juggling a few books at different stages - THE PERFUME GARDEN for the US, two new novels are being edited, and I'm finishing up the research for the story I'll start in September. Editing is necessary - 'writing is rewriting', but the siren call of the new story is strong ...

BOOK LIST: Kate Lord Brown - Favourite books set in Spain

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Spain is one of my favourite countries in the world. I actually spent my honeymoon there, and so I think of it as a gorgeous, romantic and sensual country. I drew upon the historical setting of the Spanish Civil War for my own novel FULL FATHOM FIVE and have been interested in both the place and the time ever since. (and yes, yes, I know! It was published under my maiden name, Kate Humphrey) 

Kate Lord Brown, the author of the wonderful books THE PERFUME GARDEN and THE BEAUTY CHORUS has kindly compiled a list of her favourite books set in Spain. 

She says: 

"We arrived in Spain in the winter of 2001 at the end of several months travelling around the world, with just a battered silver trunk in the back of our small convertible. 

I had never visited the country that was to be our home for the next few years, and had no idea what to expect. In my imagination, it was a combination of austere, beautiful hilltop castles, dazzling bougainvillea, whitewashed mountain villages – and the blowsy high rise resorts on the coast so beloved by European tourists. In imagination it was sunny, hot. The drive through the drizzly Pyrenees, across the sweeping plains to Madrid and ochre hills to Valencia surprised me.

There have been some good ‘Year In Provence’ style books published since – notably Chris Stewart’s ‘Driving Over Lemons’, which is a good start if you are planning to visit or live in Spain. 

When we moved there, I was relying on my copy of the Rough Guide to Spain, Spanish for Dummies, and a general admiration for Spanish literature. There’s nothing like youthful gung-ho enthusiasm. 

I had always loved the work of Spanish writers – the influence of authors like Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez was responsible for the not entirely successful magic realism of my early stories. If you like Allende’s novels, I recommend her cook book/memoir ‘Aphrodite’ which I packed in the trunk when we moved to Spain, and cooked my way through over the months. 

I love Spanish language poets too, Lorca and Neruda particularly. I began to immerse myself in Spanish culture and history as we travelled – everything from the basics of the Spanish Civil War, to Hemingway’s evocative, macho ‘Death In the Afternoon’. 

In Spain, I read Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ during a memorable trip south to Granada (So did I, Kate LB!). If you ever get the chance to visit the Alhambra – go. It’s a magical, fairytale place, just as beautiful in reality as in imagination. As the idea of writing a novel about Spain came together thirteen years ago, I started reading more deeply – the photo illustrating today’s post is just one shelf at home. 

There are boxes of Spanish history books and novels, stored with the early notes for ‘The Perfume Garden’ in England. These are just a few of the very best books I came across:

‘Homage to Catalonia’ by George Orwell, and ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ by Laurie Lee are two classics that transport you back in time and into the shoes of two writers who fought during the Spanish Civil War.

‘Battle for Spain’ by Beevor and ‘Doves of War’ by Preston were the two most useful histories of the Civil War.

‘South from Granada’ by Brennan (in fact anything by Brennan on Spain), is a wonderful account by one of the Bloomsbury set of his time in Spain. Worth reading for the account of Virginia Woolf on a mule alone.

INTERVIEW: Kate Lord Brown - author of THE BEAUTY CHORUS

Sunday, June 16, 2013

VINTAGE POST - Interview with Kate Lord Brown – May 2011

Kate, tell me about your new book, ‘The Beauty Chorus:

A: It tells the little known story of the incredible Spitfire Girls - women pilots who flew everything from fighter planes to huge bombers during WW2. The tale is told from the point of view of three fictional girls - Evie, Stella and Megan, but it interweaves fact and fiction. The figher pilots nicknamed these glamorous volunteers 'the beauty chorus' - but they were incredibly brave and skilful pilots too!

What was the first flash of inspiration for this book?
A: I was flicking through one of my husband's magazines when I was doing the recycling (as you do!) and came across a small obituary for one of the women. I thought immediately - why don't people know more about these amazing people? I want to know more! From that tiny article, months and months of fascinating research followed.

How long did it take to build it into a complete story?
A: I started researching and writing back in 2008, so it has been a long - but enjoyable - process

What were some of the greatest challenges you had to overcome in writing it?
A: I'm not a pilot! I had to learn enough about WW2 aircraft, flying, the real events and stories of these characters lives to make the story 'ring true'. 

I’m a huge fan of your blog, ‘What Kate Did Next’ – could you tell me a little bit about how it began and what you try and achieve with it?
A: Thank you! It began with the hunch that there must be other writers and readers out there like me - tied to the house with small children, living in the middle of nowhere, and unable to get out to writer's groups. What I try to achieve is exactly that - a global writer's group. We have people following, and writing with us now from all over the world, and we even did a spin off 'Burning Lines' where we wrote a whole short novel online together during one month - it was a bit like playing consequences!

BOOK LIST: Books Read in April 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I read 10 books in April, bringing me to a grand total of 44 books for the year. All but one was a historical novel - next month, I must try and read a little more widely!

The Changeling – Philippa Gregory

This is Philippa Gregory's first foray in Young Adult Fiction and I thought it was really well done. From the opening scene, I felt as if I was in the hands of a storytelling master. The pace is swift, the characters are believable, sympathetic and sharply drawn, and the historical setting done with a sure, light touch. The book twists together a medieval mystery, romance, and a touch of the supernatural to make a most enjoyable read. 

The Firebird – Susanna Kearsley

I was drawn to this book by the utterly gorgeous cover and also by a Good Reads recommendation which said it was like other authors I'd enjoyed like Kate Morton and Kimberley Freeman. It's always a risk and an adventure trying out a new author, and I'm really glad I took the jump. Susanna Kearsley's writing is just gorgeous - very sensuous and vivid - and the storyline is intriguing. The heroine Nicola has the psychic gifts of seeing 'flashes' of an object's past when she lays her hands on it. Although she works in antiques and art, she tries to keep her gift hidden from the world. Until she touches a simple, wood-carved firebird ... and finds herself on a quest to discover its story. The Firebird combines contemporary and historical narratives, romance, suspense, and a a twist of the supernatural into a delicate, wise tale. I believe the book is part of a connected series and so I look forward to discovering her other books. 

The Darling Strumpet – Gillian Bagwell
A wonderful historical novel told from the point of view of Nell Gwyn, the feisty mistress of Charles II. 

Silent in the Grave – Deanna Raybourn
Silent in the Sanctuary – Deanna Raybourn
Silent on the Moors – Deanna Raybourn

I read and enjoyed this these Victorian murder mysteries some time ago, but recently realised that there were now five in the whole series and I had only read the first three. So I set myself the task of reading them all again. They were a great pleasure to revisit. Each book is a separate mystery, but a lot of the intrigue comes from the slowly developing romance between the heroine, Lady Jane Grey, and the mysterious investigator she first meets in the first line of the first book: 

"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor." 

The tone of the books are wry and clever - there's a lot of subtle ironic humour - plus I loved the way lady Julia slowly turns from being a repressed Victorian lady to a bold, sensual and self-determined woman. I'm looking forward to reading the last books in the series (I've already bought them!) 

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris – Jenny Colgan
A book bought solely on the title and the cover! I don't read much chick lit but enjoy a frothy comic romance every now and again. This was even frothier than I expected - and not quite as funny as I had hoped - but a few memorable characters, gorgeous descriptions of making chocolate, and the Parisian setting made it a most relaxing and sweet read. 

And Then She Fell – Stephanie Laurents
I enjoyed this Stephanie Laurents book more than I have some of her other titles --- I think because there was a murder in there as well which meant that was a story line other than the usual rake-meets-lady angle. Good holiday reading.

The Perfume Garden - Kate Lord Brown
A young woman inherits an old house in Spain, discovers clues to buried family secrets, meets a gorgeous Spaniard, and finds her true path in life ... interposed with flashbacks to her grandmother's experiences during the bloody and turbulent Spanish Civil War  ... this book is exactly the sort of book I love to read the most. And I did love it! Look out for a longer review and an interview with the author in the months to come. 

The Chalice – Nancy Bilyeau 
I read and really enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Crown last year and so was eager to return to her world of bloody Tudor intrigue, romance, with a twist of the supernatural. Her heroine Joanna is a sympathetic character and the story is filled with  slowly building suspense. 

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